APS News

... And the Physicists Sang Along

Laura Greene and Walter Smith wow the crowd with a duet performance of 'fabricate!'

Photo credit: Ernie Tretkoff

Laura Greene and Walter Smith wow the crowd with a duet performance of "Fabricate!"

Richard Feynman would have been there in a heartbeat. So would James Clerk Maxwell and J.J. Thomson. They were certainly present in spirit at the first ever APS Singalong, held in conjunction with the March Meeting in Baltimore, where over 50 attendees sang physics-centric lyrics to familiar tunes while being accompanied by a guitar and a bongo.

Singing songs about physics is a long, time-honored tradition that originated in England, according to singalong organizer Walter Smith. Smith is a physics professor at Haverford College who runs what he describes as the premiere online collection of physics songs in the world. [See http://www.haverford.edu/physics-astro/songs.]

James Clerk Maxwell may have been the first physics songwriter. Maxwell composed alternate lyrics to the then-familiar folk song "Comin' Through the Rye," substituting the meeting of two young lovers with a rumination on the physics of collisions. By the early 20th century, Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory had made singalongs a tradition of their winter holiday parties, with participants like J.J. Thomson standing on chairs and singing parodies at the top of their lungs.

There’s even a US precedent for physics singalongs. Before he achieved national fame for his satirical ditties, Tom Lehrer was a physics grad student at Harvard, where he penned an entire musical show called The Physical Revue.

Thanks to his six-year involvement in collecting physics songs, last year Smith inherited some valuable historical documents: a bundle of ancient mimeographs of some of the songs sung at the Cavendish Laboratory in the early 1900s, carefully preserved by Arthur Quinton. “I was absolutely overwhelmed,” said Smith. “My hands were shaking as I looked through the old pages, revealing delights that might otherwise have been lost forever.”

The find inspired him to organize the Baltimore singalong. “I felt we needed more socializing activities,” he explained. “After all, one of the most important purposes of any conference is to spark new collaborations, which often grow from social encounters.”

Smith himself penned most of the songs featured at Wednesday's singalong, including "The Love Song of the Electric Field" (sung to the tune of "Loch Lomond"), and the opening number, “L, Me Say L” (to the “Banana Boat Song”). “I thought it would take awhile to cajole folks into actually singing along,” he said. “But they started singing right away.” They were accompanied by guitarist Jamie Diorio, a UMD grad student in mechanical engineering, and UMD physics professor Victor Yakovenko, who provided the percussive beat with bongos and maracas.

James Riordon, head of the Society’s Media Relations, obliged with an original tune about evolution. Physics professor Laura Greene of the University of Illinois performed a song she wrote called "Fabricate" (see Zero Gravity), sung to the tune of "Cabaret." It satirizes former Bell Labs physicist Jan Hendrik Schoen, who was found to have engaged in scientific misconduct.



©1995 - 2016, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff